A literary hoax that picked up extraordinary steam before imploding is charted in “The Cult of JT LeRoy.” Having begun filming the subject in 2002, and with a background in social work uniquely congruent with “his” background claims, Marjorie Sturm draws on a rich array of material to assemble a first documentary feature that’s fascinating on numerous levels. The topic’s residual infamy (plus the onscreen presence of many duped celebrities) should make this a viable specialty item as it expands beyond its home-turf theatrical launch March 13 at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater.
San Francisco was where JT (aka Jeremiah “Terminator”) LeRoy claimed to have been abandoned by his “truckstop prostitute” mother after a cross-country road trip. After years purportedly on the street, involved in drugs and prostitution, he was encouraged at age 15 by a therapist to write “as a form of therapy.” As early as 1994, he began soliciting long-distance mentoring relationships with numerous established writers, editors and literary agents. All were at first reluctantly intrigued by the unseen teenager’s harrowing circumstances, then enthralled by the precocious writing samples they were sent.
The publication of his allegedly autobiographical novel “Sarah” in 1999 greatly expanded LeRoy’s following. Its lurid yet curiously lyrical poor-white-trash saga of an androgynous boy pulled into his hostile mother’s trick-turning lifestyle made LeRoy (then supposedly still just 19) a celebrity. The apparent overlaps between his fiction and real-life history, not to mention their hot-button themes (child abuse, sexual exploitation, gender dysphoria, homelessness, et al.), proved irresistible to a dizzying range of media outlets always looking for the next big thing.
More, that dramatic backstory, combined with the inspirational aspect of his writing success, attracted celebrities well beyond the literary realm. (Famous fans/”friends” seen here at various events and readings run the gamut from Sandra Bernhard, Michael Musto and Susan Dey to rock stars Stephan Jenkins and Billy Corgan.) Asia Argento directed a starry film feature of the (again, supposedly autobiographical) story collection “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things” in 2004; other materials were also sold as screen properties.
But amid the rapt media glare, some began to raise doubts over this “extraordinary found object in the literary fields,” even as LeRoy himself slowly emerged from shy, seldom-glimpsed early fame to a fairly shameless public omnipresence. (The author’s slight androgynous frame was always cloaked in wigs, shades and other guises, however.) The “vulnerable, stuttering, schizophrenic kid we had first known” was now a “monster of ambition.”
The mountain of media coverage allowed certain observers and presumed intimates to realize how often LeRoy’s confidences and tales of past traumas contradicted one another. Those who had either lived in San Francisco — or (like Sturm) worked with the city’s mentally ill and homeless populations during his alleged period on the streets — found those stories didn’t match up, and couldn’t be confirmed by any witnesses. None, that is, beyond LeRoy’s adopted family of local couple Laura Albert and musician Geoffrey Knoop, who happily exploited the fame wave alongside him.
In late 2005, successive investigative pieces in New York magazine and the New York Times revealed the truth: There was no JT LeRoy, save as a construct. Forty-year-old Albert had been the actual writer all along, while Knoop’s half-sister Savannah played LeRoy in public appearances. The resulting fallout triggered widespread anger and embarrassment from those who’d been duped, as well as at least one lawsuit. But the cagey Albert (whom Sturm never interviews directly here) left many questions unanswered even after she finally, just partially emerged from hiding later on. Was she simply a frustrated-artist grifter who’d found a genius solution to creative obscurity, then cynically milked it for all it was worth? Was JT LeRoy a deliberate, postmodern act of literary performance? Or was that writing persona a genuine form of therapy for a “very disturbed individual,” as the otherwise tight-lipped San Francisco psychologist Terrence Owens attests in court-deposition footage?
“The Cult of JT Leroy” is astutely framed as a still-evolving mystery, with Sturm letting its participants (the most notable non-participants being Albert and Savannah Knoop, as well as certain prominent celebrity supporters like Gus Van Sant) recall their own seduction and slowly dawning incredulity in a roughly chronological account. Fragmentary, impressionistic re-enactments dot a diverse assembly that otherwise draws on a great deal of archival footage in addition to newly shot interviews. While Albert’s decision not to defend herself here leaves her looking much like the conscienceless, sometimes emotionally sadistic manipulator some retroactively view her as, a late flurry of shrugs that “the writing doesn’t hold up” from former acolytes suggests their critical judgment is now as distorted by resentment as it once was by media hyperbole.
The result is consistently absorbing, with the diverting range of materials deployed united by Josh Melrod’s canny editing and an aptly spectral score by Ernesto Diaz-Infante.